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Councils set to join forces

PUBLISHED: 07:30 16 October 2009 | UPDATED: 14:40 06 July 2010

A trio of Norfolk councils yesterday signalled they are to join forces to save cash - but talked down suggestions of full scale mergers.

North Norfolk, King's Lynn and West Norfolk, and Yarmouth councils have secured a £50,000 grant between them to look at how they can share services - starting with their revenues and benefits departments and some areas of customer services.

A trio of Norfolk councils yesterday signalled they are to join forces to save cash - but talked down suggestions of full-scale mergers.

North Norfolk, King's Lynn and West Norfolk, and Yarmouth councils have secured a £50,000 grant between them to look at how they can share services - starting with their revenues and benefits departments and some areas of customer services.

The closer co-operation, which is being funded by Improvement East, an offshoot of the regional assembly, is being driven by fears that council budgets will be hit by multimillion-pound funding shortfalls as the government seeks to cut the nation's debt.

They will look at whether the councils can use the same computer software to make services more efficient and, if so, then a further cash bid to pay for a new system would be made.

Virginia Gay, leader of North Norfolk Council, said that working together to save money made great sense, but only if done without losing contact with local communities.

"We think that sharing knowledge and using the best practices in place across the services could save costs and improve the performance of all three councils," she said.

Nick Daubney, leader of King's Lynn and West Norfolk council said his authority was facing a £1m budget shortfall in 2012 so it was vital to act early.

"All our services are up for review," he said. "Taking advantage of the economies of scale, and shared knowledge of what works, makes perfect sense."

Steve Ames, cabinet member for resources at Yarmouth Borough Council, said: "Collaboration with other authorities is the only way forward in these cash-strapped times. This will benefit residents of all districts involved."

The shift to greater shared services comes as speculation is rife of possible merger talks between Broadland and North Norfolk, while there were also suggestions that Broadland had approached neigh-bouring authorities to see if there was any interest in sharing director and chief officer posts.

Meanwhile, there is talk that South Norfolk and Breckland councils are also courting each other in what could amount to a 'marriage' between the two sides.

Ms Gay said she had not heard talk of any mergers. "There has been all kinds of speculation going on, and conversations at various levels," she added. "I haven't heard the word merger used at all - that sounds a bit extreme. Co-operation and alliances are more likely."

Norwich City council leader Steve Morphew has hit out at plans outlined by the Conservatives to scrap the unitary overhaul if they win the general election.

A decision on the local government review has stalled until a fate of a legal challenge to the process is known. But supporters of unitaries see the shared services agenda as a shift towards unitary authorities by the back door and City Hall is still hoping that communities and local government secretary John Denham could yet grant Norwich its home rule dream.

Mr Morphew said: "The unitary bids being considered by the Bound-ary Committee both show massive savings after the initial investment.

"The Conservatives seem to believe their own dodgy propaganda, rather than facts. That suggests we have won the real argument for change. Even if we are stymied this time, it is not something that will go away for long. I hope the government has the courage to do what is right. This feels like Tory opposition to public services dressed up in sheep's clothing."

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